The Iranian plateau seems a world away from the lush valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers: it is a more difficult land, akin to the great steppes to its north and northeast. For years its inhabitants were kept in check by the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Elamites, but that would all begin to change in the seventh century BCE. Ancient kingdoms and empires would fall; the new power in the land arose in Persia.
While “Persia” would eventually become the term used to describe the whole of the Iranian plateau and the modern-day nation of Iran, it originally described the territory now known as Fars in southwest Iran, an arid steppe area along the Zagros Mountains. That area was named Persia after the tribe of Persians, an Iranian people who likely came from north of the Caucasus Mountains and moved into that area around 1000 BCE.
Most of the land of modern day Iran was made part of the Neo-Assyrian Empire until the Iranian tribes quietly ceased paying tribute around 625 BCE. Cyaxares, king of the Median Iranian tribes, asserted himself, entered into a coalition with Nabopolassar king of Babylon, and conquered the Assyrians. By the end of the seventh century BCE the Medes had overcome Urartu to the north of Assyria, parts of modern day Turkey and Armenia, northeast into central Asia, and the entire Iranian plateau, including the Persians.
Cyaxares’ son Astyages succeeded him as king of the Medes; in 553 BCE Astyages’ maternal grandson, Cyrus king of Persia, led an insurrection against him and defeated him in 550. Having conquered the Medes and its empire, Cyrus defeated Croesus king of Lydia and conquered the Lydian Empire in 546, extending Persian rule over most of modern-day Turkey. Cyrus is best known for conquering Babylon and thus the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 539 (cf. Daniel 5:1-31). Isaiah foretold Cyrus’ rise and considered him anointed of YHWH (cf. Isaiah 44:28, 45:1); Cyrus obtained the goodwill of the subjects of his new empire by encouraging them to return to their homelands and serve their gods as attested by the Cyrus Cylinder found at Babylon as well as the Scriptures in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23, Ezra 1:1-8, 5:13-14. Cyrus’ son Cambyses is not attested in the Scriptures but is famous for conquering Egypt in 525 BCE, bringing to fruition what was prophesied of Egypt in Ezekiel 29:1-32:32. Thus the Achaemenid Persian Empire had been established, stretching from the Mediterranean and Egypt to the steppes of Central Asia.
A dynastic crisis took place after Cambyses’ death; ultimately, Cambyses’ personal lance bearer, Darius, would ascend to the throne and would be recognized as the next Achaemenid Persian king (521-486 BCE). The Judahites completed the Second Temple in the days of Darius (ca. 516; cf. Ezra 5:1-6:18); it was also in Darius’ day that Persian forces first attacked the land of Greece and were defeated at the Battle of Marathon in 490. Darius nevertheless extended the borders of the Persian Empire to their greatest expanse, including Thrace in Europe, to the Indus River in the east, and into Libya and the Sudan in Africa. Darius efficiently organized the empire, dividing its territories into provinces which were to be overseen by appointed leaders called satraps; he established Aramaic as the language of governance in the empire, as had been the case under the Assyrians and Babylonians, established standardized weights and measures, and developed better roads. All of these improvements led to greater unity within the empire.
Darius’ son Xerxes reigned from 486-465 BCE and is the King Ahasuerus of the book of Esther. He attempted to avenge his father’s defeat at the hand of the Greeks, defeating them at Thermopylae and burning Athens to the ground in 480. His Phoenician navy was defeated by the Athenians at Salamis and his army was defeated at Plataea and Mycale the next year. The military campaign was thus a disaster for the Persians, leading to the loss of Macedonia and the Greek cities of Asia Minor. The Greek historian Herodotus provided the chronicle of all the events described above according to the Greek perspective and the stories he was told in his extensive travels throughout the Mediterranean world in the middle of the fifth century BCE.
Xerxes was succeeded by his son Artaxerxes (465-424 BCE). Nehemiah served Araxerxes as cupbearer and would be allowed to return to Jerusalem to re-establish its fortifications (Nehemiah 1:1-13:31); Artaxerxes commissioned Ezra to return from Babylon to Jerusalem to establish the Law of Moses there (cf. Ezra 6:1-10:44). Artaxerxes is the last Persian king mentioned by name in the Old Testament, and it is likely during his reign that the prophets fell silent.
After Artaxerxes’ death a period of dynastic crisis prevailed until Artaxerxes II, a grandson of Artaxerxes I, ascended to the throne. He would maintain the longest reign of all Achaemenid Persian emperors, from 404 until 358 BCE. And yet the empire was struggling: Artaxerxes II was not able to quell a revolt in Egypt, suffered a revolt from his satraps, and was constantly fighting with the Greeks. He was succeeded by his son Artaxerxes III (358-338); he overcame some military defeats and revolts and finally eliminated native rule from Egypt until the modern era. Artaxerxes III’s son Artaxerxes IV was poisoned soon after ascending to the throne, and his nephew Darius III became the last Achaemenid Persian king. In 334 BCE Alexander II of Macedon invaded the Persian Empire and inflicted significant defeats upon the Persians at Granicus (334), Issus (333), and finally at Gaugamela (331). Darius III died ignominiously and his murderer was put on trial and executed by Alexander. After Alexander’s untimely death in 332 BCE his empire was divided among his four generals; the Persian Empire was thus divided among the Ptolemies and Seleucids.
The Iranian plateau would fall under the rule of another steppe people, the Parthians, from 247 BCE until 224 CE, when they were conquered by another Persian dynasty, the Sassanids, who would maintain their rule until the Muslim invasions of 637.
The Achaemenid Persians oversaw a significant transformation in the ancient Near East; they were the first to subject the entire ancient Near East under the rule of one leader, and its empire was one of the most stable and longest lived. The Hebrew Bible strongly condemned the Assyrians and Babylonians and foretold disaster and distress at the hands of the Greeks and Romans; and yet the prophets, Ezra, and Nehemiah have nothing but positive things to say about the Persians. The dangers faced by Israel in the days of the Persians are attributed to their enemies: the leaders of the Samaritans and others in Ezra, Haman in Esther. The Persian Empire thus gave Israel a chance to return to its land and begin to work to restore their fortunes there, and thus they are remembered well.
The Achaemenid Persians had built upon the infrastructure they received from the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Medes. Their inability to defeat the Greeks would ultimately become their undoing, and their time under the sun came to an end after three hundred years. And yet what the Achaemenid Persians built persevered: Alexander and his successors largely left the Persian infrastructure of empire in place, and for many among the Persians the events of the late fourth century BCE remain very much alive, as if they happened only yesterday. The Achaemenid Persians fulfilled an important purpose in the plan of God; they have passed on, but the word of God endures. May we prove faithful to God’s word and purposes and glorify God in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry